When it comes to guys who have come and gone through the Boston Celtics organization in recent years, Al Horford was among the toughest to dislike.
But when he jumped ship and signed on with the rival Philadelphia 76ers, the Horford bandwagon around these parts got lighter.
A lot lighter.
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It was a move that sent shockwaves throughout the East and almost immediately catapulted a Sixers squad picked by many to be the team to beat in the East.
The move also brought a momentary pause to some of those awesome memes between Horford and Philly’s Joel Embiid, a reminder of how Horford son'd Embiid seemingly whenever the Celtics and Sixers were in the playoffs.
But the good times Philly fans expected have been anything but that as the Sixers limp into the playoffs as the sixth-seed in the East where they will face Horford’s old team, the heavily favored Celtics.
Seeing as how the regular season played out for both teams, it makes one wonder if Horford made the right decision in leaving Boston (he had one year left on his deal before choosing to opt-out and become an unrestricted free agent last summer).
Horford made the decision to leave Boston for a number of reasons.
At or near the top of the list was NBA teams valuing Horford at a higher price tag than the Celtics were willing to pay. The five-time All-Star eventually signed a four-year, $109 million deal with the Sixers, which was more money and more years than the Celtics were offering.
Knowing they had Gordon Hayward on a max deal and that Kyrie Irving’s replacement (Kemba Walker) would command a similar contract, re-signing Horford to a deal in that same ballpark would not have been fiscally smart for Boston.
And that doesn’t even take into account Jaylen Brown’s new deal which kicks in next season, or the expected max-salaried contract Boston is expected to offer up to Jayson Tatum during this offseason.
Also, it wasn’t like Horford was strictly chasing a check when he joined the Sixers.
Embiid has been arguably the best center in the NBA the past couple of seasons. Ben Simmons is a two-time All-Star who — despite not having a jumper — has leaped ahead of many as one of the top playmakers in the NBA as well as an elite multi-positional defender. Throw in the low-key Tobias Harris as a legit No. 2 or 3 scorer and for Horford, going to Philly — on paper at least — satisfied both his desire to play for a good team while also getting the kind of salary he felt he deserved.
But this basketball marriage has been one filled with ups and downs for all involved from the very start.
This season Horford averaged 11.9 points per game while shooting a career-worst 45.0 percent from the field. He averaged 6.8 rebounds per game, the third time in the last four years he averaged less than seven rebounds per game after averaging at least that many throughout each of his first nine seasons. Horford took a career-high 4.2 threes per game, but made just 35 percent of them, which ranks among his worst shooting seasons in the league shooting from deep.
It got to the point where the Sixers had Horford coming off the bench, which is not what the Sixers brass or the rabid fan base in Philly expected to see from their prized offseason signing, who is pulling in a cool $28 million this season.
And listening to how Philly head coach Brett Brown tries to explain Horford’s role, it just pours more fuel on the fire of a relationship that Brown has yet to figure out how to get the most out of — both for Horford and the team.
“As a backup 5 (center), you’re not going to get much better,” Brown said. “As a starting 4 (power forward), playing with Joel, I’ve been happy with the pairing.”
Because when you look at the team’s struggles this season in terms of overall play, the pairing of Horford/Embiid has not elevated the team’s overall play anywhere close to where they expected.
When the two are on the floor, the team has an offensive rating of 103.1, which is the worst offensive rating among all Philly tandems who have played in as many games as Horford and Embiid (46) have together this season.
And while Horford’s versatility as a defender has often been praised as one of his strengths, that hasn’t necessarily translated in games in which he is paired with Embiid. Philadelphia’s overall defensive rating this season is 108.4, which ranks eighth in the league. However, more telling has been their defense in the Bubble, which has come about primarily with Ben Simmons (left knee surgery) sidelined.
In the eight games in the Bubble, Philadelphia’s defensive rating of 114.8 ranks 17th out of 22 teams.
And in Boston, they will face a Celtics team whose offensive rating was among the best going into the Bubble and is still right up there, currently ranked sixth with an offensive rating of 116.7.
So, what does that all mean for Horford in this series? The absence of Simmons will certainly create more Embiid-Horford pairings, with Horford likely having to spend more time defending Jayson Tatum.
This is a problem for the Sixers.
Horford is one of the better big-man defenders when it comes to guarding his man or having to switch out when a pick is set. But Tatum presents a problem — not only because of his ability to score off the dribble and finish at the rim or from mid-range, but also because he is becoming more comfortable with using his ability to get to spots to set up teammates for great looks.
And Horford will be challenged when it comes to using his strength edge against Tatum at the other end of the floor.
There’s a reason why Horford took a career-high 283 three-pointers this season despite playing in 67 games (the fewest he has played in since 2014). That's because when he’s paired with Embiid, Horford is used primarily as a shooter to help space the floor. But as we saw in Boston and before that in Atlanta, one of Horford’s greatest strengths is in his ability to operate the offense from the block or elbow which leads to great looks for himself or his teammates.
And when he’s paired with a defender who isn’t as bulky — which will be the case with Tatum — he can utilize his size and play a bit of bully-ball on the block.
But the presence of Embiid changes the calculus of that formula.
Embiid has to be on the block to be most effective. And while impactful, that low-post presence in many ways negates or minimizes Horford’s play, which as we mentioned earlier, relies on him being able to get others involved and not so much on him being a spot-up shooter.
Horford’s play was going to be pivotal to the Sixers’ chances, regardless of who they had healthy or who they were playing.
But when you throw in Simmons being out for the series and Horford facing his former team, there are plenty of choices when it comes to the narrative for this series and how it relates to Horford.
"To have him with us and matching up against his old team, there’s a story within a story," Brown said. "We’re excited to play Boston."